Most organizations today are undergoing some sort of “transformation” and it is likely not their first. Whether it is an agile, digital, lean or financial transformation, organizations are trying to reinvent themselves to be nimbler, customer focused and ultimately more competitive. And while all organizations begin with the best intentions, the reality is that transformations are risky and they often fail outright or they fail to deliver their desired results.
Many agile transformations are started and few are completed successfully. A recent McKinsey survey showed the disparity. Of 2,500 business leaders who were surveyed by McKinsey, 75% said enterprise agility is a top priority yet less than 4% had actually completed an agile transformation. One major reason for transformation failure is that many leaders underestimate the difficulty of transforming organizations. Transformations are difficult and they take time. They are a campaign. More akin to a marathon than a sprint.
And that leads to a second major reason for failure – that transformation is not made a priority. Many organizations fail to truly prioritize transformation efforts over other possible activities. Or they take on too many things at once. Transformation is a priority when there is a clear financial and emotional investment in them, to the exclusion of other opportunities. If “transform the organization” was one of 20 things on the list of priorities for the year, well, it is not likely to happen.
Leaders may also fail to recognize that a transformation is actually a program of change. For example, some mistake agile transformation for a process change limited to IT or Scrum adoption. [See our related post: 5 Key Differences between Agile Adoption and Agile Transformation] They don’t garner enough support and buy in from those business stakeholders who stand to gain most from increased agility.
Harvard’s John Kotter has been writing about organizational change for over 25 years. Kotter has identified 8 essential elements of successful change programs. These are the eight key things that leaders need to do for a transformation effort to succeed. These have evolved over the years but generally include the following:
- Create a Sense of Urgency
- Build a guiding Coalition
- Form a strategic Vision
- Enlist a Volunteer Army
- Remove Barriers
- Generate Short Term Wins
- Sustain Acceleration
- Institute Change
Let’s focus for a moment on the first 4 items which directly relate to building an effective transformation coalition.
#1 – Leaders Need to Create a Sense of Urgency
How important is it to create a sense of urgency? Kotter says it makes the difference between success and failure.
Well over 50% of the companies I have watched fail in this first phase. What are the reasons for that failure? Sometimes executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones. Sometimes they grossly overestimate how successful they have already been in increasing urgency. Sometimes they lack patience… In many cases, executives become paralyzed by the downside possibilities.
— John Kotter, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail
What does it take for you to create a sense of urgency sufficient to drive people out of their complacency? And what qualifies as urgent?
For some, the 2020 COVID pandemic was urgent. It impacted their ability to service customers or perform any type of work. For other organizations, the pandemic created an inconvenience that had to be accommodated. In any case, responding to the pandemic was likely insufficient to qualify as sense of urgency.
Urgency can be difficult because we sometimes confuse short term firefighting with urgency. And most organizations are structured and incentivized to prioritize short-term objectives at the expense of long-term competitiveness and resilience. [See our related post: Fight, Flight or Freeze – How Technology Leaders are Showing Up Now]
There are tradeoffs and they are important. What you as an executive might find urgent, others may see as something that can be put off until later. Can we agree that urgent is reserved for items that are directly tied to business viability and survival?
Which leads into the second element – building an effective guiding coalition for transformation.
#2 – Leaders Build Guiding Coalitions for Transformation
To be effective, transformation leaders need to build a powerful guiding transformation coalition. While it is great to have one strong executive leader, Kotter says this is insufficient. Successful transformations have not only the CEO, President or Division GM, but that it includes another 5, 15 or 50 of the individuals that have the most influence, expertise, reputation and relationships.
It should be obvious at this point that transformation leaders can’t simply make a proclamation and then punt the ball to their underlings. They can delegate some of the work but they cannot abdicate their own responsibilities. The most effective transformations were ones in which the leaders attended classes and hosted town halls and went through their own personal transformation before inviting others.
There is a great risk here that some managers may nod their heads yes but remain unconvinced of the change. In particular for agile transformations, the benefits are not always obvious for middle and line managers and in some cases, they are identified as unnecessary overhead. Silent resistant can slowly erode momentum and undermine leadership efforts.
Kotter says not to waste time on obvious resistors because they will only suck your energy and they may never become “convinced”. Instead, he advises you to forget about them – “Get them out of the way, no matter who they are…If you let them inside the tent, they will do so much damage that the change will be undercut“. Move forward with the most powerful group that you can and hope that others either join after seeing how well it is working, join out of fear of missing out, or self-select out and find another position.
#3 – Leaders Cast a Compelling Vision for the Transformation
Having a compelling vision for transformation is so important that not having one topped a recent list of top 7 ways to mess up your transformation.
A compelling vision is more than stating that 50% of all projects will be agile by year end, or, 90% of our staff will be trained in agile this year. Nor should the vision be about implementing a particular tool (e.g. “We will implement Jira!”) or adopting a scaling framework like Scaled Agile Framework or the Spotify Model.
Enterprise Agile Coach Dave Saboe emphasizes the importance of being clear about “why agile”:
What do you and your organization hope to achieve by transforming the way you work? Having clarity about your ‘why’ and being able to articulate it in terms of business outcomes you hope to achieve can bring alignment in your organization and it improves the chances of achieving those desired outcomes.
Dave Saboe, Enterprise Agile Coach
Vision statements should connect to all stakeholders and provide a north star for what the organization is becoming. The vision statement should not be a detailed, step by step project plan for transformation. When senior leaders request a detailed plan as part of the vision, it is clear they want to use a waterfall plan to organize their agile transformation. Rather, the approach for an agile transformation may look more like a series of experiments and opportunities to learn.
Agile expert Anjali Leon says a compelling vision statement paints a future that others want to be part of:
A compelling vision statement paints a picture of a better future. A future that stands for something meaningful, and where everyone in the organization can see how they can positively impact that future.— Anjali Leon, Agility and Resilience Coach and Advisor
Similarly the vision statement may help those who won’t get on board to self-select out or explore options outside the organization.
#4 – Leaders Recruit a Volunteer Army
The most common method forming transformation teams is to voluntell people they need to join. As you can imagine, that has predictable results.
The alternative approach is to ask for true volunteers. This is a key feature of Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) where the emphasis is on using small groups of volunteers rather than wholesale assignments of people who may feel that they have no voice in the matter.
Making a personal choice to join is the key. It is OK for potential participants to say yes and it is just as OK to say no. But you don’t want participants to say, “I was told I had to do this”. That only fosters a sense of victimhood and top-down direction setting.
Jesse Fewell, author of Untapped Agility, dedicated an entire chapter of his book to describe how to enroll others in change and “give the transformation away”:
The research on highest performing organizations shows a pattern of de-centralizing and distributing the transformation. Certainly having a transformation office, with single-point-of-content, and an official playbook will get you started. But to turn that spark into a blaze, you need to give it away.
— Jesse Fewell, Author, Coach and Trainer
Invite people to volunteer to participate. Start small and don’t try to engage everyone at the beginning.
How to Succeed with Your Transformation
We reached out to several technology leaders and change experts who have led or supported agile transformations to see what advice they would provide others. Here is a high-level summary of their responses. For more details, please download our free companion article, Executive Leadership Do’s and Don’t for Transformation.
Do This – Tips for Successful Transformation
#1 Have Clear Outcome Measures
Agile Coach Tom Cagley advises transformation leaders to identify at the onset what success looks like. He feels that success measures for an agile transformation must answer the following questions:
- Are we delivering more outcomes?
- Are we delivering outcomes faster?
- Is the transactional cost of an outcome lower?
- Are we doing the work with the highest value?
- Is the work that we are delivering higher quality?
- Are our stakeholders more satisfied?
#2 Focus on Constancy of Purpose
Cagley also reminds us of Constancy of Purpose which is the first of Dr. Deming’s timeless 14 points from his 1985 book, Out of the Crisis. Deming views Constancy of Purpose as essential for long term business continuity:
Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.
– W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis.
In short it means that we should maintain a long-term, continuous improvement mindset and not be distracted with short term results. Focusing on the long term and on improving products and services will actually protect the company and people’s jobs.
#3 – Enable Others Through Servant Leadership
To truly unlock the talents of others, we need to support them, empower them and clear roadblocks. We need to set it up so that people feel that they did it themselves rather than having been “transformed” by someone else. This is servant leadership at its best.
Great leaders may find themselves behind the scenes while still demonstrating strong leadership. As Jesse Fewell explains:
This approach takes courage, because it means tolerating other people getting credit. It means letting other departments use different techniques, because it helps them do better. It means understanding that some groups will change faster than other groups. Yes, you may be the leader that strikes new ground with a transformation. But the next level of growth beyond will not come from you; it will come from them.
— Jesse Fewell, Author, Coach and Trainer
Don’t Do This – What to Avoid for a Successful Transformation
#1 – Don’t Outsource Transformation to Consultants
Hiring others to transform your organization may seem expedient, but it is not effective. Leaving others to do all the heavy lifting for your transformation would be an anti-pattern.
Is there a role for outside coaches in your transformation? Coach Raven Cashaw says yes there definitely is:
It may be helpful to bring on an Agile Coach to be the “temporary” mirror of change to:
- Be a living and breathing example of the agile values and principles
- Demonstrate how the teaching/education of the selected agile framework is practiced; living while doing
- Help the organization identify internal agile coaches and change agents
- Coach the organization and teams in understanding the importance of vulnerability, safety, and transparency
- Support the discovery of the stage where all voices of the organization can harmonize to the tune of not only the customer but to our communities and those underrepresented. “
— Raven Cashaw, Coach and Founder of RAAVE Technology
#2 – Don’t Stop at the Vision Statement
While Anjali Leon stresses the value of the compelling vision statement in building the coalition and the volunteer army but recommends that you don’t stop there:
Many transformations start with crafting a compelling vision statement and stop there. A vision statement is meaningless if the actions of the leader do not reflect that vision and if the vision is not followed by an invitation to workforce to be a part of the change. Helping everyone make a meaningful contribution to that change will also require a serious investment in re-skilling in technical and functional skills as well as how to be better collaborators and co-creators.
— Anjali Leon, Agility and Resilience Coach and Advisor
#3 – Don’t “Install” Transformation Like a Piece of Software
Are you thinking about copying the “Spotify Model” or implementing SAFe? That is not going to address the cultural change that you need to succeed.
Dave Saboe advises against the “installation” approach for transformation that some organizations pursue:
Understand that Agile isn’t like a piece of software that you can install in your organization and it may not be compatible with your current culture. You’ll get the most benefit from Agile ways of working if you have a culture of openness, safety, experimentation, empowerment, and learning. It’s up to you and other leaders to create an environment in which people can succeed.
— Dave Saboe, Enterprise Agile Coach
About the Authors
- Tom Cagley – Tom is an Agile Trainer, coach, and speaker with a single minded focus on unlocking the inherent greatness of organizations and teams and then proving it. He is a prolific author of two books and his long-running blog. He probably best known for his 14+ year podcast, Software Process and Measurement Cast (SPaMCAST). Follow Tom on LinkedIn at Tom Cagley and Twitter at @TCagley.
- Raven Cashaw – For the past decade, Raven S. Cashaw has worked collaboratively with teams and organizations to fulfill their dreams through validated Agile practices and powerful coaching strategies. Raven is the founder of a successful company, RAVVE Technology, which reflects her passions for both technology and agile journeys. Follow Raven on LinkedIn: Raven Cashaw
- Jesse Fewell is an author, coach, and trainer who helps senior leaders transform their organizations to achieve more innovation, collaboration, and business agility. Jesse founded and grew the original Agile Community of Practice within the Project Management Institute (PMI), has served on leadership subcommittees for the Scrum Alliance, and written publications reaching over a half-million readers in eleven languages. Follow Jesse’s blog, connect with Jesse on LinkedIn and on Twitter at @jessefewell.
- Anjali Leon – Anjali is a professional coach, workshop designer & leader and inspiring speaker specializing in value-driven product leadership and values-based people and personal leadership. She is well known in her home state of Florida for her engaging workshops and as co-leader of the Empowering South Florida Women In Agile group which she founded in 2015. Follow Anjali on LinkedIn at Anjali Leon and Twitter at @anjalileon.
- Anthony Mersino – Anthony is the founder of Vitality Chicago, a training and coaching firm focused on helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. Follow Anthony on the Vitality Chicago Blog, on LinkedIn at Anthony Mersino and Twitter at @A_Mersino.
- Dave Saboe – Dave helps organizations, teams, and individuals do the best work of their lives. He is an Enterprise Agile Coach, podcaster, and a frequent speaker at industry conferences. Connect with Dave on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter at @MasteringBA.
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